Iran will not ship its low-enriched uranium out of the country for processing, its foreign minister said Wednesday, once again rejecting a U.N. plan aimed at thwarting any attempt by Tehran to make nuclear weapons.
Instead, Foreign Minister Manochehr Mottaki countered with a proposal certain to fall short of Western demands.
The United Nations last month offered a deal to take 70 percent of Iran's low-enriched uranium to reduce its stockpile of material that could be enriched to a higher level, and possibly be used to make nuclear weapons.
That uranium would be returned about a year later as refined fuel rods, which can power reactors but cannot be readily turned into weapons-grade material. Iran maintains its nuclear protgram is only for the peaceful purpose of generating energy.
"We will definitely not send our 3.5-percent enriched uranium out of the country," Mottaki told the semiofficial ISNA news agency. But he added: "That means a simultaneous fuel swap could be considered inside Iran."
The counterproposal was an indication of Iran's unwillingness to trust the West with its fuel for the time needed to transform it into the more harmless fuel rods.
Mottaki said that Iranian experts were looking at the modified proposal to determine what amounts of uranium should be exchanged for fuel rods.
However it remained unclear what would happen with Iran's uranium, if it would be shipped out of the country as part of the trade or remain inside Iran.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian C. Kelly said the U.S. was waiting for Iran to submit its formal response to the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.
"What was said today doesn't inspire our confidence" that Iran will accept the proposal that was tentatively agreed to in Geneva.
President Barack Obama said during a visit to China on Tuesday that there would be repercussions if Iran rejected the latest plan.
The idea of Tehran shipping uranium for further enrichment was first raised at a landmark meeting with the U.S. and other world powers at the beginning of October in Geneva. At the time, Iran also agreed to inspections after the disclosure of a once-secret uranium enrichment facility plant known as Fordo, near the holy city of Qom.
Kelly said the U.S. was still consulting with its negotiating partners on a way forward. At some point, he said, the focus would turn to ways of increasing sanctions pressure on Iran, adding, "We're not quite at that point now. But time is short."
Under the U.N. proposal, Iran would export its uranium, which is enriched at less than 5 percent _ enough to produce fuel to burn in plants. Enriching uranium to much higher levels can produce weapons-grade material.
In exchange, the Iranian uranium would be further enriched in Russia and then be sent to France. Once there, it would be converted into fuel rods, which would be returned to Iran.
The amount of uranium that would be exported by Iran under the U.N. plan, about 1.2 tons (1,100 kilograms), represents about 70 percent of its stockpile. It would have been sent to Russia in one batch by the end of the year, easing concerns the material would be used for a weapon.
Around 2,200 pounds of low-enriched uranium is needed to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single nuclear warhead, according to experts. Iran is believed to have well over that amount of low-enriched uranium in its stockpiles.
Mottaki's proposal indicated that Iran was open to further negotiation when he dismissed a comment by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the U.N. plan was its only choice.
"Diplomacy is not all or nothing. Mrs. Clinton's comments that Iran must accept only this proposal is not diplomatic," he said.
The U.S. and its allies see the export process as buying time to reach a compromise with Iran by depriving it of the amount of uranium needed to potentially make a nuclear bomb. Western powers believe Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, or at least the ability to produce them on short notice.
IAEA inspectors visited Fordo last month.
The heavily fortified and bunker-like uranium enrichment facility has further heightened Western suspicions about the extent and intent of Iran's nuclear program.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, chief Iranian delegate to the IAEA, said that Fordo looked the way it was because uranium enrichment will "not be stopped by military attack _ that is the political message of this site."
He added that "the important message is ... enrichment in Iran will continue at any price."
Iran says the facility was fortified to protect it against any possible attack by the U.S. or Israel.
Officials say the plant won't be operational for another 18 months and would produce uranium enrichment levels up to 5 percent, suitable only for peaceful purposes. Weapons-grade material is more than 90 percent enriched.
Associated Press writers Robert F. Burns in Washington and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.